The Messaging App Clones of Mobile Network Operators

The billions of dollars of revenues of mobile network operators from SMS have been strongly declining in the last 2-3 years. Especially in European and Asian countries where flat rates for texting are less common, users have quickly adopted over-the-top (OTT) messaging apps to avoid costs. As of today far more messages are sent with Whatsapp, Line, Kakao Talk, Viber, etc. than by traditional texting/SMS of mobile network operators.

Clones of leading messaging apps

Trying to counteract this trend many mobile network operators have launched their own messaging apps in recent months. Telefonica launched TuMe, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom started to offer Joyn, and this week Swisscom followed with iO. There are several more examples like these. All of these messaging apps have one thing in common: They are more or less clones of the leading messaging apps.

These clones should basically replace your standard messaging app on your mobile device and offer some additional features. With the mobile network operator apps you can send text messages and exchange single photos. Some of them feature location attachments and voice messages as well as simple group chats. VOIP calls and video chats are also available on some of these apps.

Currently minor performance and no new features

From a user interface and design perspective TuMe and iO look solid, while Joyn shows a very basic and text-centric design. From a performance perspective most of them are still buggy and not the fastest messaging apps. However, the apps are still pretty new and over time this will hopefully change.

TuMe App

Joyn App

Initially free of charge with additional features coming at cost

The apps are a free download. The usage of messaging features should be free of charge, but this could depend on your tariff and on the mobile network operator (so if you decide to use one of the apps, make sure you check). VOIP and video chat features should be expected to come at a cost sooner or later.

Overall, the messaging apps of mobile network operators offer nothing new or special. With the current performance and features of these apps, there are no reasons for users to switch. Further, the innovation in the instant messaging space is still expected from the market leaders. And the clones will only follow the herd.

How PRISM Affects Messaging Apps

As a consequence of the PRISM scandal many users are worried about the protection of their privacy, and how safely service providers handle their data.

Probably most user data of messaging apps can be monitored

It seems that if you are not a USA citizen, the government and its agencies have less restrictions in regard to what data they can monitor. If you are a citizen of the USA, there seem to be more restrictions on how they can access your data.

Generally it is likely that the agencies get quicker access to companies based in the USA. In other countries legal hurdles will prevent a quick and direct access to a user’s data.

While reliable information is hardly available, not only big companies like Facebook, Sykpe, Google, Twitter, AOL, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, etc. are affected by PRISM, but probably as well many smaller service providers including the ones offering messaging apps and services.

Privacy and data protection unlikely with messaging app providers from the USA

Thus, most messaging app providers from the USA could well be affected by PRISM. And just to remember, some of them often haven’t had a history of being secure.

Overall, from a privacy perspective this can be worrying. It is not that the normal user has something to hide, but that her content and data might be monitored and stored somewhere without her knowledge.

Messaging services with end-to-end encryption from other countries beneficial 

Of course, people could turn to encrypt their messages, but many of the messaging apps offering encryption are not easy to use or not performant enough to be competitive. iMessage and Facetime are some of the exceptions which are said to be end-to-end encrypted. However, if Apple really has no master key to unlock your data, remains an open question.

If you are worried about your privacy, it is maybe worth taking a look at European messaging providers (for more info please read our secure and private sharing article). Some European countries like Germany have pretty strong law with regard to privacy and data protection. This could well be a safe harbor.

Google Hangouts – Another Standard Messaging App

Google recently launched Hangouts for iOS and Android as a replacement for Google Talk and several other messaging projects. To keep it short: Except for the group video chat feature, the app is more or less like every other mainstream messaging app.

Google Hangouts App

Standard messaging app with simple and clean interface

Hangouts has a simple and clean interface. If you know how to use your texting app or are familar with Whatsapp, Line, Skype, etc., the UI will be straightforward for you. The new Hangout screen with the large photos of your favorite contacts is nice.

In addition to text, so far users can only exchange photos. However, it is quite likely that other digital contents like locations, voice messages, video, contacts, etc. will be available in the future (if Hangouts wants to gain a minimal market share only, they will need these features…most of their major competitors have them).

Group chats with video feature

Like most messaging apps nowadays Hangouts offers group chats. However, unlike other messaging apps Hangouts also features video group chats where you can chat with up to 10 friends.

The current versions for iPhone and Android have several bugs and performance issues (e.g. video chat crashes the app, and also the audio seems delayed quite often). Overall, except for the video chat maybe, we don’t see a need to use Hangouts. There are too many other similar, but currently better performing messaging apps out there.

How Messaging Apps Are Becoming The New Social Networks

While the media mainly discusses the strong growth and influence of social media, many people fail to realize a far bigger trend: The incredible growth of messaging apps, and how they are increasingly replacing traditional social networks.

Many messaging apps are strongly growing and have more than 100 millions users

Each mobile messaging app like WeChat, Line, Whatsapp, Kakao Talk and Viber has 100 million or even more users. Besides there are a lot of smaller and often more specialized players like Grouptime, Kik, Snapchat, etc. All of them not only seem to be strongly growing, but also rise at a much higher rate than the big social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Co.

The daily usage of messaging apps is among the highest of all mobile apps. Users open their messaging apps several times a day, and often send hundred messages or more. Compare that with social networks: They are still without doubt a place of regular visits, however, more for content browsing and entertainment (and killing boredom as some say). The intensive communication with close friends and family, something social networks were used for in the past, is handled increasingly by messaging apps. And if you believe the latest studies, the usage of social networks is clearly on the decline.

Group chats replace social networks for sharing with family and friends

While instant messaging apps have been primarily used for 1-to-1 conversations, some of them have started to offer simple group chat features. People quickly have found out that, in addition to straight forward communication and coordination, these group chats are great for quick photo sharing with family and friends. Especially because group chats are so easy to set up and completely private, they offer the right environment for private sharing without the complicated settings on social networks.

Some newer messaging apps like Grouptime now completely concentrate on group messaging and private sharing. You can share with one-click with personal groups like family and friends. The messaging inbox works with posts with nice, large photos like a social network, but in real-time like a messaging app. It is basically a real-time private social network.

Other apps like Line offer a status feed like on Facebook. Well, in this case there are no privacy controls, and it is not different than your well-known social network, so the benefit is quite limited. However, it shows how some messaging apps further enter the social networking realm.

Sharing of digital content with messaging apps gets better and better

Messaging apps don’t stop with group photo sharing. All content sharing features are widely improved: Users now can easily exchange whereabouts via location databases, videos, voice messages, calendar dates, website links and even YouTube videos. Furthermore, some apps allow you to share multiple content items and photos at once (Grouptime is a good example again).

In the future it is expected that even more content types can be shared, and also the integration in various third party apps and services will become common. In regard to innovative features, messaging apps have already taken the lead. Basically, all functions (including “liking”) of social networks and much more will be possible with the leading messaging apps.

Private sharing is strongly on the rise and far larger than public sharing

A recent study estimates that sharing via Facebook and Twitter is only the tip of the iceberg, and private sharing via instant messaging and email nowadays accounts for ca. 70% of all sharing. With the unstoppable rise of mobile messaging apps these figures will be outdated soon, and Facebook and Twitter will be further challenged. Even Mark Zuckerberg noted in a recent article, that sharing with smaller, private groups is the biggest trend Facebook is seeing.

How the social networking giants will react is unclear, but one thing is sure: Messaging apps will be the primary way to easily, privately and securely share with family and friends.

The Real Cost of Free Messaging Apps

Currently there are basically two types of messaging apps in the market: The first type has to be bought by the user for a license fee or a yearly subscription. The pricing is normally in the $1-2 range. The second type is free, and either comes with advertising or various in-app purchases to get the full functionality of the app.

Free messaging apps are users first choice

Needless to say, a user often goes for the free messaging apps. Especially if the feature set of the messaging app is competitive and compelling, only having to deal with ads seems pretty cheap initially. Besides many free messaging apps in the first 1-2 year after their launch don’t even show advertising to increase user growth. But make no mistake, sooner or later you will pay the price.

If you are lucky, a free messaging app later decides to monetize via an affordable subscription. If you are unlucky, you will get ads, which will finally end your privacy and data protection. To better target ads, providers of messaging apps need as much information as possible about their users. If you write a message to a friend, that you want to go shopping for some shoes, wouldn’t it be great to get some ads displayed about some shoe shops in your neighborhood? Well, probably you wouldn’t like it. However, for the messaging app provider these would be highly paid ads.

Advertising requires analysis of a user’s content and data 

The question will be, where to draw the line between privacy and data protection of the users on the one hand, and the monetization interests and required user information for targeting of ads on the other hand. In doubt many providers of free messaging apps will go for the higher monetization and against the user’s privacy. Which means: They will analyze your messaging content and often even hand it over to third parties.

That’s why I suggest, that as a user you should try to understand the revenue model, privacy and data protection of the messaging app you are going to use right from the start. Changing the messaging app and moving all your friends to another service later, is no fun at all and would incur a high additional cost.

Some messaging apps have a clear commitment to privacy and data protection

The good news is: There are some messaging apps that make a clear commitment to privacy, data protection and against advertising, and monetize via in-app purchases or with an affordable yearly subscription. Good examples are Whatsapp (SMS alternative) and Grouptime (great for group messaging and sharing).

As of today many things described here, are not yet visible for users of messaging apps. Nevertheless, this is the future, because all free messaging apps have to make a profit somehow. You can decide, if it happens at the cost of your privacy.

Best Content Sharing with Messaging Apps

The more popular messaging apps become, the more they become personal and private social networks (like Grouptime). Users privately share photos, moments, links, voice messages, locations, videos, calendar dates, etc. with family and close friends. That raises the question, which messaging apps are the best for content sharing. The capabilities of the various messaging apps actually strongly vary depending on the content type:

Exchanging and sharing photos

In addition to sending text messages, sharing photos is probably the most prominent uses case with messaging apps. Nowadays all popular messaging apps enable users to easily exchange single photos. The newer and better apps allow users to send multiple photos at once (Grouptime, Line, Kakao Talk).

Grouptime displays the photos in large and without bubbles in the chat, so users can view them nicely and directly without the need to open single photos. If several friends post their photos to a chat, this creates a great album of an event or a party, and it is great to easily exchange photos with friends.

Some apps enable users to add a caption (description) to a photo. Good examples are group messaging apps like Grouptime, Touch, Groupme.

Location sharing

Messaging apps are pretty good for private location sharing. You simply select your location, and send it to selected contacts or a group of friends. Since finding one’s location with the GPS or network stations is not very accurate (sometimes it is half a mile/kilometer away from the real position), some messaging apps offer a selection of locations around the position user. These messaging apps use location databases like Foursquare or Google Places to offer a wide selection of venues. With Whatsapp or Grouptime the user can simply choose the location where she is at (e.g. shop or restaurant), and send it – automatically including the address – to her friends. This is also great for giving directions.

Location sharing with Grouptime

Location sharing with Grouptime

Contact sharing

Not a very prominent use case, but for those of you, who regularly need to exchange contacts from your address book, check out ChatOn or Line.

Sharing moments

In general, messaging apps are not really made for sharing moments. The bubble style chats are mainly good for texting. There are some messaging apps, that have started walls or news feeds for sharing similar to Facebook. However, you always share publicly with everybody.

If you look for an app where you can privately share moments with selected people from your contacts, maybe Grouptime is something for you. Unlike other group messaging apps, Grouptime works with instant posts like a private social network. For sharing moments with private groups like family and close friends the app is pretty awesome.

Sending voice messages

Exchanging voice messages is mostly a standard feature of messaging apps in these days. Power users have turned to specialized apps like Voxer, which operate more like a walkie-talkie.

Calendar sharing

Currently there are only two messaging apps that enable users to share dates from their calendar: Grouptime and ChatOn. We prefer Grouptime, because the group messaging and sharing capabilities are better to exchange dates.

Link sharing

Nearly all messaging apps detect links in chats. However, most of them don’t offer any functionality around sharing links. If you want a preview of links or YouTube videos (like in social networks like Facebook), try Grouptime.

Group sharing of links with Grouptime

Group sharing of links with Grouptime

The future of content sharing

In the near future the content sharing with messaging apps will offer better functionality and more content types (documents, drawings, music, etc.). In addition, we will see better integration into 3rd party services. Some of these upcoming features have already become visible in very basic versions in a few messaging apps. Still, this is just the beginning of content sharing with messaging apps.

Private Messaging and Sharing Apps

In general people seem to become more and more privacy aware. While a couple of years ago social media and its related public sharing were a major trend, nowadays a kind of reverse trend has emerged. On the one hand people seem less comfortable with sharing everything with their hundreds of followers and friends on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, but complicated privacy settings make more private sharing a nuisance. And on the other hand people seem more worried what happens with their content and data, and how it might be used by these networks without their consent. Thus in order to stay in control of their privacy, people increasingly turn to messaging apps which can make it quite easy to privately share. There are some good examples of how messaging apps can help people to protect their privacy, and also some issues to be aware of.

“Self-destructing” Content

I guess an extreme example of privacy protection with a messaging app is Snapchat, which is mainly used for photo sharing. The sender determines how long a photo is visible for the recipient (the maximum viewing time is 10 seconds), and afterwards the photo is not viewable anymore. The app is a big hit among teens, who use the app for sometimes doubtful use cases, which are also referred to “sexting”. Having said that, while sharing “self-destructing” images seems to do a job, for sharing everything else (text messages, locations, links, etc.) the app is useless. Besides the user interface is very basic, and people who look for beautiful design will be rather turned off. Facebook already cloned Snapchat with the app “Poke”. However, Facebook is probably not the right choice when it comes to privacy. We generally expect that “self-destructing” content will become a feature of messaging apps and social networks. So for those of you who don’t need this right away, simply wait a couple of months and your messaging app of choice will probably include such a feature.

Private Sharing and Group Messaging

Most messaging apps (e.g. Whatsapp, Line, WeChat, ChatOn, FB Messenger) have group chats by now, which more and more people also use for private sharing with groups. Well, group chats are pretty useful for coordinating, but for private sharing they are far from perfect. First, the chats with the bubble style are not clearly laid out and can be confusing, especially when it comes to sharing content like photos, links and locations. And second, setting up and inviting people to a group is still too complicated and not really adequate for personal sharing. Our preferred solution for private group sharing is an app called Grouptime, which is a private social network that combines group messaging and classical social network sharing. With its beautiful and simple to use interface, the app makes it actually really easy to personally share all kinds of content with the people you choose. Besides grouptime allows you to share multiple photos at once, and displays large images of contents like locations, links and photos. Due to a recent blog post it seems that privacy protection is very important to Grouptime. So if your looking for an app to privately share with family and close friends, and haven’t tried Grouptime, check it out.

No Advertising

This is more a side note, but an important one: Messaging apps that include advertisements, normally need to analyze and mine user data for better targeting of ads. So if your privacy is important to you, make sure to choose a messaging app with a business model that does not rely on advertising.

European Provider

We would choose an European messaging app (e.g. Grouptime, Moped, Threema, Yuilop, MySMS, etc.), simply because Europe has by far the best law enforcement and civil rights when it comes to privacy and data protection. Especially the US-based services were not always the best examples when it came to security and privacy protection in recent years….not to mention the lack of privacy laws in the US.

Encrypted Communication

While for many users encryption is not a must-have feature (who wants to spy on me anyway?), nowadays it is often a standard practice among messaging apps to encrypt the communication (e.g. via https) as well as a users data. If this is a must-have feature for private sharing for you, simply check with your messaging app of choice. The required information is normally available directly on a providers website.

Recently Updated Messaging Apps

In the last weeks several instant messaging providers launched major updates of their apps. Most apps simply seem to copy other messaging apps or improve the more common features. Some messaging services seem to focus more on certain use cases and try to follow new trends.

Grouptime

Grouptime launched a major update of their iPhone version last week. This app is a good example of a differentiated use case. So if your are looking for a group messaging app where you can privately share with family or best friends with one click, Grouptime will probably the right solution for you. While you can use the app for 1:1 instant messaging, it is obvious that Grouptime concentrates on group messaging and group sharing. The redesigned message inbox of the new version of the app reminds me of a private Facebook feed, and thus their idea of a real-time private social network becomes evident.

The update includes new features, redesigns, performance improvements, iOS6 readiness, and many bug fixes. My impression is, that Grouptime has developed a beautiful, stable and well performing app.

Grouptime - Private Social Network

Group Messaging and Private Sharing with Grouptime

Kik Messenger

Kik introduced “Kik Cards” in their recent app updates. Kik Cards are optional features e.g. to share YouTube videos, find and share images and edit sketches. The advantage of this user interface design is that the app is kept simple. On the other hand some other messaging apps integrate these features simply as part of their attachments, so I am not sold on the idea of Kik Cards. It is probably their way to start monetizing third party services and applications being integrated into their service.

Kik Cards

Whatsapp

Especially in Europe Whatsapp has gotten a lot of bad press and negative feedback from customers, due to the lack of security of the service. For the last 12 months or so the leading instant messaging app has launched various updates to fix these security issues, but almost instantly security experts found new issues. No matter how important these security issues are for the average user of an instant messaging app. Still, it is kind ridiculous that the current market leader in the messaging space doesn’t manage to fix these things entirely.

Whatsapp optimized their iPhone app for iOS6 and included some minor bug fixes in the recent update. Their Android update focused on fixing security issues. Let’s see how many days it takes this time until someone finds a way to break into an account.

Others

Line, Kakao Talk and WeChat – the Whatsapp clones from Japan, South Korea and China repectively – all recently launched updates for their messaging apps. In addition to instant messaging, some of these apps offer VOIP calling, a social network feed like Facebook, integration of third party services and many more features. While all these messaging apps are very popular in Asia, the amount of features make them very cluttered and some users might find them confusing. Personally I am more a fan of messaging apps with a clean design, a clear use case and a simple user interface like Kik and Grouptime.

Why Instant Messaging Apps Are Replacing Classical Texting

With trillions of SMS messages sent every year, texting has been the standard way to exchange messages with friends and family on mobile phones for the last 20 years. However, currently “texting” as the messaging market leader is being disrupted and under strong attack by instant messaging apps. Many smartphone users are currently switching from classical text/SMS messages to newer instant messaging apps. The reasons for this replacement are pretty obvious:

Cheaper

Instant messaging apps use the data network of your smartphone to send messages cost-free via the internet. All you need is a data network for internet surfing, which most users have included already in their mobile network operator tariff or have available via public or private WiFi networks.

Thus sending messages with instant messaging apps is completely free of charge. For teenagers and young adults, who often send 100 messages per day, and previously had to pay $0,05-0,20 per message, this means huge savings.

Better

Instant messaging apps nowadays work the same way as texting (users receive a push notification on their smartphone for new messages), but offer users far more functionality.

While classical texting allows users to send simple text messages, exchanging photos is often not without difficulties. Instant messaging apps on the other hand allow users to easily exchange all kind of digital contents with friends: Photos, videos, links, locations and voice messages are pretty much the standard among some of the better services (e.g. Whatsapp, Kik Messenger, ChatOn, KakaoTalk, TextMe, MiTalk). Some even allow you to send dates from your calendar, simple drawings, locations from comprehensive data bases, multiple photos at once, etc.

Some instant messaging apps even have great group messaging capabilities. Users are able to easily set up group chats with family or friends. These can be used to plan and coordinate activities of groups or privately share digital content (e.g. Grouptime).

Besides instant messaging apps show users, if their messages were received and if recipients are online.

More innovative

Instant messaging apps innovate in very short cycles. The competition is hard, and thus service providers regularly improve their apps and launch new features. This is obviously a change from the texting world, where the lack of competition hardly forced the mobile network operators to innovate at all in 20 years time.

Facebook Messenger 2.0 for iPhone

Facebook just unveiled a major update for its Messenger for iOS. The Facebook Messenger version 2.0 makes it compatible with iOS6 and iPhone 5, and introduces a couple of new features.

The new version 2.0 of Facebook Messenger for iOS enables users to swipe left, to immediately see which friends are online and available for messaging. Friends can be made favorites to appear at the top of the friend list for quick access. Just like the web interface, you can see who in your thread has viewed your message and when she read it. I guess, some people will see this feature as an advantage while others will believe its an intrusion into their privacy.

The design of the chats has been changed to typical chat bubbles, making conversations look more like text message exchanges than email. Facebook Messenger also offers a list of emoticons that are compatible with Facebook Messenger for those who like reliving the good old instant messaging days.

Generally we like the simple and clean user interface of the new Facebook Messenger 2.0. Besides the app is pretty fast and works stable so far. However, this version moves the Facebook Messenger more into a good texting alternative and tries to position itself as a leading 1:1 instant messaging app (like Whatsapp, Kik Messenger and ChatOn), but makes it less good for group messaging and sharing (where we see dedicated apps like Grouptime in the lead).

You can download the new version for free from iTunes.